This startup grew its revenue by saying no to customers

Entrepreneur John Arrow never dreamed of saying “no” to his clients when he and his two co-founders launched a digital agency, mobile health insurance. The Austin-based company designs and engineers end-to-end digital experiences for customers and staff using cutting-edge technology. Clients today include startups and Fortune 500 companies. But Arrow and his team have learned to take a disciplined approach to client strategy.

The trio started Mutual Mobile in 2009, near the end of one of the worst financial crises in US history. It may seem like a bad time, but building a business in an economic downturn offers valuable lessons. “It was not a good time to go out and get capital, so we thought we should be able to do it on our own from day one,” says Arrow. “One of the best decisions we’ve ever made as a company was not accepting funding.”

The team knew that to win customers in a bear market, they had to stick to a simple mission; help a business generate revenue or reduce costs. This meant resisting the temptation to use the latest technology for fun, or as a game to appear relevant, despite customer demands. “The lessons we’ve been trying to learn are – let’s see how to say no early on, even if it means leaving money on the table,” Arrow says. “If it doesn’t improve the customer experience or benefit the business,” Arrow explains, “it’s pointless.”

Arrow and his colleagues learned the hard way after producing a virtual reality (VR) project for Walmart simulating the future of shopping. The imagined scenario is already outdated. “It was a really good reminder to not only make sure something has meaning now, but there’s a timelessness to it,” Arrow says. “A lot of companies approach us wanting to do something with blockchain or NFTs and we say no to a lot of things because it just doesn’t make sense with what they’re doing.”

Saying no to customers is something Arrow embraced in the early days of Mutual Mobile; even when it meant quitting 100 clients. At the time, enterprise mobility had just begun. The large experimentation budgets were mostly limited large companies, rather than startups. For Mutual Mobile to grow, it needed to stay focused on mobility technology. This meant the resignation of a large number of clients as part of a strategic change. “At the start, we had 150 customers and 150 employees. We resigned about 100 customers so we could focus on enterprise mobility and work with customers like Nike and Under Armour. Our turnover increased immediately.

Mutual Mobile has worked on many health technology projects, which have also informed the company’s philosophy. “We have heard of the Hippocratic oath; do no harm first and we try to apply that to all the work we do,” says Arrow. He believes the integrity behind saying no builds trust with customers. For Mutual Mobile, this is part of a sustainability strategy that includes customers who are aligned with their ethos and not looking for the next shiny thing. “The most overlooked part is the user. We know how an interface can ruin your day if it doesn’t work properly. The mindset is not only how we can generate revenue for our customers and save them money, but also how we can solve problems for the user that technology has not been in able to solve before.

That kind of focus paid off. In 2013, Mutual Mobile sold a minority stake in the business to WPP and has over 200 employees in Austin and Hyderabad, with plans to open an office in London later this year.